Charles E. Bessey, Papers (Botany) [Arts & Sciences], 1865-1915 | Archives & Special Collections, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries
Agriculture -- Great Plains -- History
Agriculture -- Nebraska
Botanical Society of America
Botany -- Nebraska
Farm life -- Nebraska
Prairie plants -- Middle West
University of Nebraska
University of Nebraska - Chancellors
University of Nebraska - Deans
University of Nebraska--Lincoln
University of Nebraska -- Lincoln--History
Charles E. Bessey was one of the prominent leaders of American science during the late 19th-early 20th centuries. His career as a botanist, professor, and university administrator spanned forty-five of the most important years in the development of modern American science. Bessey was a prodigious letter writer whose preserved correspondence is not only massive but informative and interesting. Aside from part of his early career in the 1870's , he kept copies of the letters he wrote and the originals of those received. The collection contains everything from letters to and from local farmers and nurserymen, to scientists throughout the country and abroad, to state and national politicians and government officials. Although most of the collection consists of correspondence, there are lectures and reports covering many scientific, teaching, and administrative topics.
The period and topics covered by the Bessey Papers are significant. Most of the important developments during the first fifty years of the land-grant college movement are treated in the Papers. These include such topics as: the debate over the nature of land-grant colleges, the relationship of the colleges to agriculturalist and agricultural education, and the relationship between the new agricultural education and traditional university studies. The Papers contain material on other aspects of education during this period. Bessey was interested not only in reforming university education but was also very active in reforms in secondary instruction and was involved nationally with the Committee of Ten.
A second major area covered by the Papers is the "new botany" movement. this was an attempt to shift botany away from the traditional concentration on taxonomy toward evolution and physiology, from static to evolutionary classification, from form to function. Bessey wrote a pioneer textbook for the "new botany" and was an active proponent of the movement throughout his life. Thus there is much in the Papers of a technical nature on evolution, classification, ecology, pathology and structural physiology.
Closely tied to the "new botany" was a professionalization movement by American botanists. Again, Bessey was a leader in this movement, and there is an abundance of material in the Papers on the growth of American scientific organizations, both nationally and locally. In particular, his correspondence involves the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Botanical Society of America, and the Society for the Promotion of Agricultural Science.
Bessey also strongly supported the development of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and much of the correspondence centers on the critical period in the growth of the USDA as a scientific institution. The Bessey Papers coincide with the development of the USDA from its early and largely non-scientific days to its emergence by World War I as an internationally-recognized research institution. Many of Bessey's students acquired scientific posts with the USDA. Therefore, much information on the inner workings of the scientific bureaus is in this correspondence. In addition to agriculture, the Bessey Papers contain an abundance of material on conservation and forestry.
An important feature of Bessey's correspondence was his continued contact with his students after their graduation. This is significant because so many of his students became prominent in numerous areas of botany and agricultural science, including ecology, physiology, plant pathology, and forestry. As a result, the Papers include discussions and descriptions of a variety of scientific activities in every section of the United States in addition to the emphasis on the Prairies and Great Plains where Bessey resided during his entire scientific career
Richard A. Overfield
Professor of History
University of Nebraska at Omaha